The Four Mythological Symbols of China

The Four Mythological Symbols of China

In ancient Chinese astronomy, the sky ecliptic was divided into four sections. Each of these sections contained seven mansions, and together they formed the 28 Mansions. The 28 Mansions may be considered to be equivalent to the zodiacal constellations in Western astronomy, although they reflect the movement of the Moon through a sidereal month rather than the Sun in a tropical year. This enabled the ancient Chinese to mark the travelling positions of the Sun and the Moon, as well as to determine the time and seasons. Each section of the sky is assigned to a mythological creature, collectively known as the Four Symbols. These creatures are the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermillion Bird of the South. Apart from their astronomical significance, each of the Four Symbols is surrounded by various mythological associations.

According to the archaeological evidence, the concept of the Four Symbols may have existed as early as China’s Neolithic period (some 6,000 years ago). This is based on some clam shells and bones forming the images of the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger that were found in a tomb in Henan. In addition, it is claimed that one of the artefacts from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (c. 433 B.C.) is a lacquer-painted wardrobe with the patterns of the Four Symbols and 28 Mansions.

The Azure Dragon is the mythological creature in the East, as it is said that when the seven mansions in that area (Horn, Neck, Root, Room, Heart, Tail, and Winnowing Basket) are joined up, they form the shape of a dragon. The Azure Dragon corresponds to the season of spring. As the dragon is considered by the Chinese as the noblest of animals, it is the head of the Four Symbols. Although Chinese dragons are commonly associated with water, the Azure Dragon is the exception, as its element is wood. In Chinese mythology, the dragon is regarded as a fearsome and mighty creature. Yet, unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese dragons are believed to be just, benevolent, and bringers of wealth and good fortune.

The Azure Dragon of the East. Image source .

The mythological creature in the West is the White Tiger, and its seven mansions are the Legs, Bond, Stomach, Hairy Head, Net, Turtle Beak and Three Stars. The White Tiger corresponds to the season of autumn. The White Tiger’s element is metal, and it was held to be the God of War. In this capacity, the White Tiger was seen as a protector and defender, not just from mortal enemies, but also from evil spirits.

The White Tiger of the West. Image Source .

In the North, the mythological creature in the Black Tortoise, and its seven mansions are the Dipper, Ox, Girl, Emptiness, Rooftop, Encampment and Wall. The Black Tortoise corresponds to the season of winter. The element of the Black Tortoise is water, and this mythological creature is commonly associated with longevity and wisdom (just as these virtues are traditionally attributed to ordinary tortoises in Chinese mythology).

The Black Tortoise of the North. Image Source .

The mythological creature in the South is the Vermillion Bird, and its seven mansions are the Well, Ghosts, Willow, Star, Extended Net, Wings and Chariot. The Vermillion Bird corresponds to the season of summer. Interestingly, the Vermillion Bird has been considered to be identical to the phoenix. The phoenix is traditionally associated with fire, and this is also the case with the Vermillion Bird. As a mythological creature, the phoenix is considered as a symbol of good luck.

The Vermillion Bird of the South. Image source .

Within the Four Symbols of ancient China, astronomy and mythology co-existed side by side and may be seen as a harmonious fusion of science and art. By studying these mythological creatures, one is able not only to learn about the scientific advances of the ancient Chinese, but also their belief system and the way they perceived and explained the world they lived in.

Featured image: The Four Symbols . Photo source .

By Ḏḥwty

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Schumacher, M., 2014. Shijin (Shishin) - Four Legendary Chinese Creatures Protecting the Four Compass Directions. [Online]
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Chinese Dragons — Facts, Culture, Origins, and Art

A Chinese dragon head on a dragon boat

Chinese dragons are powerful and benevolent symbols in Chinese culture, with supposed control over watery phenomenon, e.g. summoning rain during a drought. Dragons are everywhere in China — in legends, festivals, astrology, art, names, and idioms.

Dragons are seen as lucky and good — quite different to the evil, dangerous, fire-breathing dragons of most Western stories.

Myths and Folklore

In such a diverse set of regional culture throughout China it is no surprise that the amount of Chinese folklore folk songs and myths are vast and diverse. Over the years the Chinese government and Universities have been collecting folklore stories and songs from all over China since 1949. This Collection now boasts over 1.8 million stories and over 3 million folksongs.

Even though local tradition varies on how the different ethnic groups around China classify these narratives they can be classified many different groups that are to be sung or to be spoken. These include folk songs categorized as epics ( Shishi) , and naritive poems ( Xushishi) similar to long ballads or lyrical fairy tales. There are also wedding songs (kujiage), drinking songs (jiuge), love songs (quingge), and work songs (laodongge). As Well as the Spoken narritives such as folktales (minjian gushi), myths (shenhua), legends (chuanshuo), animal tales (dongwu gushi) and many more different styles of stories.

China has a rich written history of folksongs dating back to the 5 th century BC. This collection can be found in The Book of Songs (Shijing), these are based on local folksong traditions, and also the Yuefu folk ballads that date back to the Han Dynasty (220BC-220 AD). There is also a large collections of folksongs called the Feng Menglong that date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). These folk songs have been incorporated in to modern films, orchestral music, and other new types of media.

Mythology in China has been gathered from the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups that are recognized by the current Chinese government. These include myths about: Creation, legend, Religion, deities and mythological figures, cosmology, mythical places, plants, substances, and creatures such as abstract(omens the four friends: chaos, gluttony, ignorance, deviousness) , birds, dragons, fish like, humanoid, mammalian, simian, snake like and reptilian.

Chinese mythological figures

The Chinese Dragon – considered to be the most powerful and divine creature as well as the controller of the waters.

Dragon-gods, from Myths and Legends of China , 1922 by E. T. C. Werner

The Jade Emperor – He was charged with running the three realms: heaven hell and the realm of the living.

“Jade Emperor. Ming Dynasty” by Anonymous – Daoist deity: Jade Emperor. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Nüwa and Fuxi – Sometimes worshiped as the ultimate ancestors of all humankind, often represented as half human half snake. Nüwa created humans from clay for companionship.

Nüwa and Fuxi (open source media)

Pangu – was claimed to be the first sentient being and creator, “Maker of the heavens and the earth.”

“Pangu” by Wang Qi (1529 – 1612) – A copy of w:Sancai Tuhui from the Asian Library in the University of British Columbia. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

The Eight Immortals – Cao Guojiu, Han Xiangzi, Han Zhongli, He Xiangu, Lan Caihe, Lü Dongbin, Tie Guaili, Zhang Guolao: each of these immortals had powers that could be transferred to a tool that could bestow life or destroy evil, these eight tools were call the “Covert Eight Immortals.”

“Chinese – The Eight Immortals – Walters 3535” by Anonymous (China) – Walters Art Museum: Home page Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The Three Pure ones (the Taoist trinity)- Daode Tianzun, Lingbao Tianzun, Yuanshi Tianzun. These are the three highest gods in the Taoists pantheon. They are considered to be the purest forms of the Tao and the origin of sentient beings.

“Taoist Triad” by Illustration of Taoist Triad on page 124, in the book “Myths & Legends of China” by E.T.C. Werner, taken from Project Gutenberg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

These are some of the more prominent mythological features. There are many more that are derived from the many different ethnical regions of China. These myths and generally inform about moral issues and informs people about their cultures and values. Like many mythologies these myths are thought to be in part factual truths.

Introduction to Chinese Characters

Chinese characters, also known as Hanzi (漢字) are one of the earliest forms of written language in the world, dating back approximately five thousand years. Nearly one-fourth of the world’s population still use Chinese characters today. As an art form, Chinese calligraphy remains an integral aspect of Chinese culture.

There are 47,035 Chinese characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典), the standard national dictionary developed during the 18 th and 19 th centuries, but the precise quantity of Chinese characters is a mystery numerous, rare variants have accumulated throughout history. Studies from China have shown that 90% of Chinese newspapers and magazines tend to use 3,500 basic characters.

Evolution of Chinese Characters

Chinese characters have evolved over several thousands of years to include many different styles, or scripts. The main forms are: Oracle Bone Inscriptions (Jia Gu Wen 甲骨文), Bronze Inscriptions, (Jin Wen 金文), Small Seal Characters (Xiao Zhuan 小篆), Official Script (Li Shu 隸書), Regular Script (Kai Shu 楷書), Cursive Writing or Grass Stroke Characters (Cao Shu 草書), and Freehand Cursive (Xing Shu 行書).

The evolution of the Chinese character for dragon (long 龍) is illustrated below:

Oracle Bone Inscriptions refers to the writings inscribed on the carapaces of tortoises and mammals during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C.). This is the earliest form of Chinese characters. Because Oracle Bone inscriptions mainly recorded the art of divination, this script is also called bu ci (卜辭), divination writings. Over one thousand of the over four thousand characters inscribed on excavated oracle bones have been deciphered.

Bronze Inscriptions are the characters inscribed on bronze objects, such as ritual wine vessels, made during the Shang (1600 – 1046 B.C.) and Zhou (1046 – 256 B.C.) dynasties. Over two thousand of the nearly four thousand collected single characters from these bronze objects are now understood.

Small Seal Characters refer to the written language popular during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). In the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), different scripts were in use in different parts of the Chinese empire. Following the conquest and unification of the country, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty simplified and unified the written language. This unification of the written language during the Qin Dynasty significantly influenced the eventual standardization of the Chinese characters.

Official Script is the formal written language of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). Over time, curved and broken strokes gradually increased, becoming distinct characteristics of this style. Official Script symbolizes a turning point in the evolution history of Chinese characters, after which Chinese characters transitioned into a modern stage of development.

Regular Script first appeared at the end of the Han Dynasty. But it was not until the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.) that Regular Script rose to dominant status. During that period, regular script continued evolving stylistically, reaching full maturity in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Since that time, although developments in the art of calligraphy and in character simplification still lay ahead, there have been no more major stages of evolution for the mainstream script.

Freehand Cursive (or semi-cursive writing) appeared and became popular during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 A.D.) and the Jin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.). Because this style is not as abbreviated as Cursive Writing, most people who can read Regular Script can read semi-cursive. Some of the best examples of semi-cursive are found in the work of Wang Xizhi (321-379 A.D.), the most famous calligrapher in Chinese history, from the Eastern Jin Dynasty (316-420 A.D.).

Click on the animation below to see the evolution of the character 龙.

The Formation of Chinese Characters

The presumed methods of forming characters was first classified by the Chinese linguist Xu Shen (許慎), whose etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字) divides the script into six categories, or liushu ( 六書): pictographic characters, (xiangxing zi 象形字), self-explanatory characters (zhishi zi 指示字), associative compounds (huiyi zi 會意字), pictophonetic characters (xingsheng zi 形聲字), mutually explanatory characters (zhuanzhu zi 轉注字), and phonetic loan characters (jiajie zi 假借字). The first four categories refer to ways of composing Chinese characters the last two categorizes ways of using characters.

It is a popular myth that Chinese writing is pictographic, or that each Chinese character represents a picture. Some Chinese characters evolved from pictures, many of which are the earliest characters found on oracle bones, but such pictographic characters comprise only a small proportion (about 4%) of characters. The vast majority are pictophonetic characters consisting of a “radical,” indicating the meaning and a phonetic component for the original sound, which may be different from modern pronunciation.

Below is an example of how some of the earliest Chinese characters were built.

Click on the animation below to see the evolution of the character 龙.

Animated by Xiangjun Shi '13

Source of the images and the explanations of the images: Leyi Li. 2000. Tracing the Roots of Chinese Characters: 500 Cases. Beijing: Beijing Languages and Culture University Press.

Noble Status

Chinese dragon is the symbol of emperors, and imperial authority.

Chinese people are descendants of dragon.

Chinese dragon is listed in the Four Symbols which are loved and respected by Chinese people: azure dragon, vermilion bird, white tiger, and black turtle. The four mythological, divine creatures represent four directions and four seasons.

Chinese dragon is among the ten mythical creatures, which are created in ancient myths and legends: Zhuzhao, Youying, Yinglong, Huanglong, Qinglong, Baihu, Zhuque, Xuanwu, Tengshe, and Gouchen.

Dragon is one member of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, which are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

10 February 2010

The Four Symbols, Five Cardinal Directions, and Four Legendary Beasts

The Four Symbols (Chinese: 四象 pinyin: Sì Xiàng) are four mythological creatures in the Chinese constellations. They are:

  • Azure Dragon of the East (青龍)
  • Vermillion Bird of the South (朱雀)
  • White Tiger of the West (白虎)
  • Black Tortoise of the North (玄武)

These Four Symbols were given human names after Daoism became popular. Azure Dragon has the name Meng Zhang 孟章 Vermilion Bird is Ling Guang 陵光 White Tiger is Jian Bing 監兵 Black Tortoise is Zhi Ming 執明.

A Han-dynasty pottery tile emblematically representing the 5 cardinal directions
Each of these mythological creatures has also been synthesized into the 5 element system:

  • Azure Dragon of the East (青龍): Wood
  • Vermilion Bird of the South (朱雀): Fire
  • White Tiger of the West (白虎): Metal
  • Black Tortoise of the North (玄武): Water
  • Additionally, there is a fifth legendary beast, Huáng-lóng (黃龍), or the Yellow Dragon of the Center. The cardinal direction associated with this animal is "centre," and its element is Earth.
  • Azure Dragon of the East (青龍): Spring
  • Vermilion Bird of the South (朱雀): Summer
  • White Tiger of the West (白虎): Autumn/Fall
  • Black Tortoise of the North (玄武): Winter

Like the other Four Symbols, the Azure Dragon corresponds to seven "mansions", or positions, of the moon.

  • Horn (Chinese: 角 pinyin: Jiăo)
  • Neck (Chinese: 亢 pinyin: Kàng)
  • Root (Chinese: 氐 pinyin: Dĭ)
  • Room (Chinese: 房 pinyin: Fáng)
  • Heart (Chinese: 心 pinyin: Xīn)
  • Tail (Chinese: 尾 pinyin: Wěi)
  • Winnowing Basket (Chinese: 箕 pinyin: Jī)

In some legends of the Tang Dynasty's general Xue Rengui, he's said the reincarnation of the White Tiger's Star. And his archenemy, Liao Dynasty general He Suwen is the reincarnation of the Azure Dragon's Star.

In Japan, the Azure Dragon (Seiryuu) is one of the four guardian spirits of cities and is said to protect the city of Kyoto on the east. The west is protected by the White Tiger, the north is protected by the Black Tortoise, the south is protected by the Vermilion Bird, and the center is protected by the Yellow Dragon. In Kyoto there are temples dedicated to each of these guardian spirits. The Azure Dragon is represented in the Kiyomizu Temple in eastern Kyoto. Before the entrance of the temple there is a statue of the dragon which is said to drink from the waterfall within the temple complex at nighttime. Therefore each year a ceremony is held to worship the dragon of the east.

In 1983, the Kitora Tomb was found in the village of Asuka. All four guardians were painted on the walls (in the corresponding directions) and a system of the constellations was painted on the ceiling. This is one of the few ancient records of the four guardians.

The Vermilion bird is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. According to Wu Xing, the Taoist five-elemental system, it represents the fire-element, the direction south, and the season summer correspondingly. Thus it is sometimes called the Vermilion bird of the South (南方朱雀, Nán Fāng Zhū Què) and it is also known as Suzaku in Japan and Jujak in Korea. It is often mistaken for the Fenghuang due to similarities in appearance, but the two are different creatures.[citation needed] The Fenghuang (Similar to the phoenix in western mythologies) are legendary ruler of birds associated with the Chinese Empress in the same way the dragon is associated with the Emperor, while the Vermilion Bird is a mythological spirit creature of the Chinese constellations.

Like the other Four Symbols, the Vermilion Bird corresponds to seven "mansions", or positions, of the moon.

  • Well (Chinese: 井 pinyin: Jǐng)
  • Ghost (Chinese: 鬼 pinyin: Guǐ)
  • Willow (Chinese: 柳 pinyin: Liǔ)
  • Star (Chinese: 星 pinyin: Xīng)
  • Extended Net (Chinese: 張 pinyin: Zhāng)
  • Wings (Chinese: 翼 pinyin: Yì)
  • Chariot (Chinese: 軫 pinyin: Zhěn)

The White Tiger is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. It is sometimes called the White Tiger of the West (西方白虎, Xī Fāng Bái Hǔ), and is known as Byakko in Japan and Baekho in Korea. It represents the west and the autumn season.

Like the other Four Symbols, the White Tiger corresponds to seven "mansions", or positions, of the moon.

  • Legs (Chinese: 奎 pinyin: Kuí)
  • Bond (Chinese: 婁 pinyin: Lóu)
  • Stomach (Chinese: 胃 pinyin: Wèi)
  • Hairy Head (Chinese: 昴 pinyin: Mǎo)
  • Net (Chinese: 畢 pinyin: Bì)
  • Turtle Beak (Chinese: 觜 pinyin: Zī)
  • Three Stars (Chinese: 參 pinyin: Shēn)

In the novel Shuo Tang Yanyi (Tales of Tang Dynasty), the reincarnation of White Tiger's Star is said to be Li Shimin's general Luo Cheng (羅 成) and the reincarnation of Azure Dragon's Star is said to be the rebellious general Dan Xiongxin (單 雄信). They two are sworn brothers of Qin Shubao (秦 叔寶), Cheng Zhijie (程 知節) and Yuchi Jingde (尉遲 敬德). Their souls after death are said to possess the body of the new heroes of Tang Dynasty and Liao Dynasty, Xue Rengui (薛 仁貴) and He Suwen (郃 苏文).

In some legends of the Tang Dynasty's general Xue Rengui, he is said to be the reincarnation of the White Tiger's Star, and his archenemy, the Liao Dynasty's prince He Suwen is the reincarnation of the Azure Dragon's Star.

The Black Tortoise is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. The word for "tortoise" was taboo and the entire entity is not just the tortoise itself, but both the tortoise and the snake. It is sometimes called the Black Warrior of the North (北方玄武, Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ), and is known as Genbu in Japan and Hyeonmu in Korea. It represents the north and the winter season. Although its name in Chinese, Xuánwǔ, is often translated as Black Tortoise in English, it is usually depicted as both a tortoise and a snake, specifically with the snake coiling around the tortoise.

Like the other Four Symbols, the Black Tortoise corresponds to seven "mansions", or positions, of the moon.

  • Dipper (Chinese: 斗 pinyin: Dǒu)
  • Ox (Chinese: 牛 pinyin: Niú)
  • Girl (Chinese: 女 pinyin: Nǚ)
  • Emptiness (Chinese: 虛 pinyin: Xū)
  • Rooftop (Chinese: 危 pinyin: Wēi)
  • Encampment (Chinese: 室 pinyin: Shì)
  • Wall (Chinese: 壁 pinyin: Bì)

In the classic novel, Journey to the West, Xuánwǔ was a king of the north who had two generals serving under him, a "Tortoise General" and a "Snake General." This king had a temple at Wudang Mountains in Hubei, thus there is a "Tortoise Mountain" and a "Snake Mountain" on the opposite sides of a river in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.

In Taoist legend it was said that Xuánwǔ was the prince of a Chinese Emperor. However, he was not interested in taking the throne, but decided to study in Tao's way. At age 16, he left his parents to search for enlightenment in Tao's way. It was said that he eventually achieved god status and was worshipped as a god of northern sky.

A Xuanwu sculpture from the Yongle Emperor era, from the collection of the Hubei Provincial Museum
Other Chinese legends also speak of how the "Tortoise General" and a "Snake General" came to be. During Xuánwǔ's study to achieve enlightenment and god status he was told that in order to fully achieve god status, he must purge all humanly flesh from his body. Since he was born he had been eating the food of the world, humanly food, therefore his stomach and intestines were still human. Legend told of an event that a god came and changed out his human stomach and intestines for a godly body so he could fully achieve god status. (It was also said that the stomach and intestines that were tossed out became the "Tortoise Mountain" and "Snake Mountain".) The stomach and intestines taken out by the god who did the surgery on Xuánwǔ were said to have taken on the shape of a tortoise (stomach) and a snake (intestines). As many Chinese legends speak of certain animals becoming demons over time as they gain knowledge, that's what the tortoise and snake became, and terrorized people. As Xuánwǔ, now in his god status, heard of this, he came and slayed the demons from his past. However, he did not kill them, as the snake and tortoise demons showed remorse. He let them train under him and atone for their wrong doings, and they became the "Tortoise General" and "Snake General", and they assisted Xuánwǔ with his quests.

According to another source, once Xuánwǔ's had begun study of the way, he discovered that he must purge himself of all his past sins to become a god. He learned to achieve this by washing his stomach and bowels (intestines) in the river. In the washing of his internal organs, his sins melted from them and into the river in a dark, black form. These then formed into a black tortoise and snake who terrorized the people. Once Xuánwǔ learned of this, he returned to conquer the forms of this past sins and subdue them under himself and they became his servants.

Huang Long (黃龍,黄龙 or 黄竜, Yellow Dragon, Mandarin: huang2 long2, Cantonese: wong4 lung4, Japanese: Kōryū or Ōryū, Korean: Hwang-Ryong, Vietnamese: Hoàng Long) is a hornless dragon who once emerged from the River Luo and presented the legendary Emperor Fu Xi with the elements of writing. According to legend, when it appeared before Fu Xi, it filled a hole in the sky made by the monster Gong Gong. Its waking, sleeping and breathing determined day and night, season and weather.

In East Asian culture, there is sometimes a fifth Guardian Beast of the Si Ling. This deity is the guardian of the center and it represents the element earth, the Chinese quintessence, as well as the changing of the seasons.

Huang Long does not appear in Japanese mythology: the fifth element in the Japanese elemental system is Void, so there cannot be an animal representing it. Because of this, Huang Long is often forgotten. However, some consider the Ouryu (Ōryū, yellow dragon) as the Japanese counterpart of Huang Long since they share some similarities.

At the end of his reign, the first legendary Emperor Huang Di was said to have been immortalized into a dragon that resembled his emblem, and ascended to Heaven. Since the Chinese consider Huang Di as their ancestor, they sometimes refer to themselves as "the descendants of the dragon". This legend also contributed towards the use of the Chinese dragon as a symbol of imperial power.

The Four Mythological Symbols of China - History

The Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors

Chinese mythology tells us about the first legendary rulers of Ancient China. These wise men and demigods ruled long before the first Chinese dynasty.

  • Fu Xi - Fu Xi was said to have invented fishing, trapping, and writing. His sister was Nuwa. It was Fu Xi and Nuwa who crafted the first humans out of clay.
  • Nuwa - Nuwa was the sister of Fu Xi. She helped him to create humans and also repaired the wall of heaven.
  • Shennong - Shennong's name means "Divine Farmer". He brought the knowledge of agriculture to the Chinese people. He invented the plow, axe, hoe, irrigation, and the Chinese calendar.

The Five Emperors were perfect kings who ruled wisely and with honor. The most famous of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor. He ruled for 100 years and brought about the start of the Chinese civilization. In addition to the Yellow Emperor were Zhuanzu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao, and Shun.

The Yellow Emperor by Unknown

The greatest creature in Chinese mythology is the legendary dragon. The dragon is a long snake-like creature with four legs each with long and dangerous claws. Some dragons are drawn with small wings, but they all have the magical power to fly. Dragons were thought to have power over water and the weather. They can control storms, tornadoes, the ocean, and floods.

The dragon was the symbol of the emperor. His throne was even called the Dragon Throne. It is said that the Yellow Emperor turned into a dragon and flew to heaven when he died.

Chinese Dragon by Tsange

Legend of the New Year

The legend of the Chinese New Year began in a small village many thousands of years ago. Each winter a monster named Nian would enter the village and attack the people. The villagers were scared and didn't know what to do. Then one year a wise old man figured out a plan. The next time Nian appeared the people used fireworks and drums to make a lot of noise. These noises scared off the monster and it fled into the hills.

The people of the village celebrated the day that they freed themselves from the monster. Each year they would light fireworks and celebrate their victory. This day became the start of the Spring Festival and the Chinese New Year.

Most old Chinese coins have an inscription of four Chinese characters to identify the historical time of their casting and their monetary value.

Most Chinese charms also have four (or more) Chinese character inscriptions but the inscription is not meant to identify when the charm was made or its monetary value (which is none). Instead, the inscription is either an auspicious desire, such as for good luck, good fortune, good health, success in the imperial examinations or business, etc., or a wish to avert misfortune from evil ghosts and spirits.

More importantly, and unlike Chinese coins, most Chinese charms also depict a variety of objects meant to enhance the inscriptions with rich symbolic meanings.

Visual and Spoken Puns

One of the peculiarities of the Chinese language is that it has a very large number of written characters but a much smaller number of spoken sounds. As a result, many Chinese characters share the same pronunciation, i.e. are homonyms.

The charms of the Ming (1368 - 1644 AD) and Qing (Ch'ing) (1644 - 1911 AD) dynasties, in particular, frequently took advantage of this characteristic. The charms may use depictions of animals, plants and other objects to substitute for other words because of their similarity in pronunciation, even though they may not have any other relationship to what is being expressed. This is what I mean by a hidden or implied meaning or visual pun, and what the Chinese refer to as auspicious or lucky pictures ( jixiangtuan 吉图 案). A more technical term would be a rebus.

Chinese Symbols and Their Meanings

2) Lu Dongbin (吕 洞宾), known for his drinking and fighting abilities, carries a demon-slaying sword. He also carries a fly whisk which he uses to walk on clouds, fly to heaven, and sweep away ignorance. (See Lu Dongbin Charm.)

3) Zhang Guolao (张果老) rides a donkey, sometimes seated backwards, and carries a tube-shaped bamboo musical instrument called a yugu (鱼鼓).

4) Li Tieguai (李 铁拐), known as "Li with the iron crutch", is a crippled beggar who carries a gourd filled with a magic elixir.

5) He Xiangu (何仙姑) is the only female in the group and usually carries a kitchen ladle, lotus, peach or fly whisk. She is known for her filial devotion, ability to resolve domestic disputes and is seen as the patron of household management.

6) Han Xiangzi (韩湘子) carries a flute and can predict the future and make fruits and flowers grow out of season. He represents youth and is seen as the patron of fortune-tellers.

7) Cao Guojiu (曹国舅) carries a ruyi sceptre or castanets which are two long "clappers" thought to symbolize the ceremonial tables required for admission to the imperial court. How he became an immortal is described in the Ming Dynasty novel "Journey to the West".

Sacred Animals

The dragon is commonly called Lóng in China. As a primitive totem of the Chinese people it can date back to the Neolithic period. This sacred animal in the ancient Chinese legend, it is referred to as the divine mythical creature that brings with it ultimate abundance, prosperity and good fortune. Its benevolence signifies greatness, goodness and blessing it symbolizes excellence, valiancy and boldness, heroism, perseverance, nobility and divinity.

Actually, the Chinese dragon is an imaginative combination from different parts of the animals. For example, its horns are from the deer, head from the buffalo, noses and teeth from the lion, palps from the shrimp, body from the snake, scales and tail from the fish, and claws from the eagle etc. This creature can run, fly and swim, even stir up the clouds and bring rain to the people if they pray it for. According to the Chinese legends, the dragons live in the heaven, the rivers, the wells, lakes and the seas. They usually hide not appear at random, they fly to the heaven in spring and hide in the water in fall.

Nine Dragon Screen (Nine Dragon Wall) in Beijing Forbidden City
In China, the dragon permeates through the great Chinese civilization because the people have special worship to the dragon. In the old dynasties, the dragon was the emblem of the emperor and the imperial power. It was referred to something about the emperor, such as, the royal court was called dragon court, the imperial robe was called dragon robe, the son of the emperor was call dragon son, the face of the emperor was called dragon face, emperor's head was called dragon head. very interesting dragon ranks the fifth among the twelve animals in the animal Chinese birth year this animal is considered celestial in China, numerous dragon shrines and altars are set up across the country the images of dragon are usually seen in the Chinese lanterns, the dragon boats, bridges, temples, the emperors' clothes and equipages, and royal buildings etc there are many current idioms and literary quotations are related to the dragon in China some Chinese people even take the character of dragon ( 龙 Lóng) as their family name nearly all the Chinese parents hope their sons become dragons (means become a useful person) when they grow up and possess the energetic, decisive, optimistic, intelligent and ambitious like the dragon.

Dragon has been comparable as the symbol of the Chinese nationality itself from time immemorial. Currently, the Chinese people around the world proudly proclaim themselves the "Descendents of the Dragon". But now when people mention the Chinese dragon it is usually associated with China and the Chinese culture.

Usually, the most directly way to know Chinese totem to the dragon is to watch their dragon dance performances during the Spring Festival or visit the Beijing Forbidden City.

Phoenix is a sacred bird in China. In Chinese, the male bird is called feng and the female bird is called huang, and the bird couple is usually called together Fenghuang. As the china dragon, this mystical bird was invented according to the parts of different animals or birds. Its head is from that of the wild goose, chin from the swallow, beak from the chicken, neck from the snake, body from the tortoise, feather from the scale of the dragon, buttocks from the female unicorn, tail from the fish and peacock. In Chinese legends, this bird is secular and known as the king of the birds. It represents the female though it has the male and female.

Phoenix is also the symbol of the emperor power in China. It attached to the dragon and used by the queen and concubines of the emperor. This bird is the emblem of wisdom, goodliness, peace, luck and harmony. Therefore, the Chinese parents often pin their hopes on their daughters to become a phoenix.

Today, the images of the phoenix can be found in many Chinese folk arts. This imaginative bird had played a very important role in the ancient Chinese civilization.

The Chinese Qilin also spelled Kylin or Kirin, is one of the four sacred animals of ancient China and reversed by the Chinese people. This fictitious animal has moose body, buckhorn, fish scales, buffalo's tail and the horse hoof. In China, Qilin is a good omen that can bring peace and prosperity. It also symbolizes the more children, the more happiness so the ancient legends about the Qilin sending a son to the no-son family are frequently told today China.

The Qilin can be found in many Chinese buildings and paintings. If you have an opportunity to visit the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace you can see its stone or bronze statues. Wonderfully, the traditional paper Qilin dance performances still can be seen in some rural areas during the Spring Festival.

Sacred Tortoise
Sacred tortoise was also called divine tortoise or efficacious tortoise in ancient China. Of the Four Chinese Sacred Animals only the sacred tortoise is real. It is considered the longest lived among the animals and can foretell the future. The Chinese people regard it as the symbol of longevity. In the ancient times, when the great events were held the wizards used to burnt the tortoise shells to judge good or ill luck by the crack.

The sacred tortoise was ever paid great respect in China. Its stone or bronze carvings and statues were found in the ancient royal palaces, emperors' tombs and common people's houses. It symbolizes the age-long of the Chinese empire, the brightness and knowledge.

Lions are said to be guardians to human in Chinese legends and myths. They guard people's houses and drive away the evil spirits. Lion statues are widely used and very common in China. Today, In some China towns, on TV, or during the traditional Chinese festivals or some great events, you may watch Chinese worship this sacred animal by lion performance dance.

The Four Mythological Symbols of China - History

Visitors to New Mexico in the late 19th century would have been pleased to purchase a souvenir rug, pot or piece of silver jewelry decorated with a swastika. "The tourists loved the motif," wrote Margery Bedinger in her popular 1973 book Indian Silver: Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers. "Between July, 1905 and 1906, 60,000 swastikas in various forms, some by Indians and others not, sold to tourists in New Mexico as genuine Indian articles."

Today's tourists, particularly those from the Western hemisphere, would be appalled. Our association of the swastika with Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party is so encompassing we would immediately assume any object so imprinted had a direct link with Nazism.

Low-fired pottery bowl from the Banshan Culture
Majiawan Village, China Neolithic Period (2165-1965 BCE)
Large central swastika probably intended
to symbolize a sun wheel.
Courtesy of Clarke & Clarke

Yet anyone who looks at art or architecture, no matter how casually, will eventually see the symbol. The Navajos, Tibetans and Turks incorporated the swastika into their rugs. Arizona's indigenous Pima and Maricopa people wove them into their baskets and painted them onto their pots. In Asia the emblem is found on everything from clothing to political ballots to the thresholds of houses. Swastikas are carved into the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art and many ancient Buddhist and Mayan temples. At Albuquerque's KiMo Theater, built in 1927 and recently restored, swastikas adorn the proscenium, entryway and the building's exterior. Elsewhere in New Mexico, they are evident in the architecture of the Shafer Hotel in Mountainair and the Swastika Hotel in Raton (now the International Bank).

One of the oldest symbols made by humans, the swastika dates back some 6,000 years to rock and cave paintings. Scholars generally agree it originated in India. With the emergence of the Sanskrit language came the term "swastika", a combination of "su", or good, and "asti", to be in other words, well-being.

There's no clear answer on how the figure migrated to other parts of Asia, Europe, Africa and the New World. Early examples of swastikas on pottery and household objects in China indicate that the swastika traveled with traders and with the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. According to Jim Clarke, an ancient Asian art expert and owner of Clarke & Clarke Asian Antiques and Tribal Art in Santa Fe, early Christian inhabitants of India and Iran used the swastika as an amulet or protective device. "In the 17th century, India and Iran were exotic places to Europeans," Clarke remarks. "Things brought back from these countries were viewed as exotic. To incorporate these symbols was considered very avant."

Detail from large Germantown
pictorial Navajo rug c1890
Courtesy of
Sherwoods Spirit of America

Clarke is intrigued by the notion that the swastika might have made its way from China to the New World with Chinese traders lost on the seas. Remains of Chinese vessels have been excavated in coastal communities in South America, he says, and along with them the goods they carried. Another theory goes that the swastika traveled with Asians who crossed the land bridge to Alaska and migrated southward to become the indigenous people of North and South America, bringing with them the magic symbols they considered crucial to their health and well-being.

Rendering of rock paintings
dating to the fourth millenium BCE
found at Chibbar-Nala, India
Courtesy of Clarke & Clarke

In his book, The Swastika Symbol in Navajo Textiles, Dennis J. Aigner cites Thomas Wilson's research in the 1890s that the earliest evidence of the swastika in America was found in excavations in Tennessee and Ohio. "That the swastika found its way to the Western Hemisphere in prehistoric times cannot be doubted . . . ." Aigner quotes Wilson's writing. One of the specimens "shows its antiquity and its manufacture by the aborigines untainted by contact with the whites."

It's also very possible that this simple variation of a cross—which was often used by early humans to represent a star—sprung up out of the "collective unconscious" among cultures all over the world. "Potters and weavers are basically the first artists," comments Josh Baer, a Santa Fe dealer of Navajo rugs and other Native American artifacts. "They probably didn't influence each other as much as resorting to patterns. In weaving if the image is not pictorial, the alternative is to use geometric forms in such a way that they represent celestial and terrestrial forms."

The swastika's meaning does seem to be similar across cultures, generally denoting abundance and prosperity and referring to the four cardinal directions. To Hindus, it is a symbol of the sun and its rotation. Buddhists consider it a diagram of the footprints of Buddha. Among the Jainas of India, the emblem is a reminder of the four possible places of rebirth: in the animal or plant world, in hell, on Earth or in the spirit world. In 1963, the well-respected Southwest author Frank Waters described the swastika's meaning to the Hopi people as a depiction of the migration routes Hopi clans took through North and South America.

In Navajo myth the swastika represents the legend of the whirling log. As told by Aigner, the tale is of a man, outcast from his tribe, who rolls down river in a hollowed-out log. With the help of sacred deities he finds a place of friendship and abundance. Until the late 1800s, when J. Lorenzo Hubbell and J.B. Moore opened their trading posts in Arizona and New Mexico, Navajos portrayed the swastika solely in their religious ceremonies in the form of sand paintings. But by 1896, with prodding by Hubbell and Moore, the symbol proliferated on Navajo rugs, sometimes lifted directly from the images in sand and depicted as a central cross with a male-female pair of standing figures ("yei" or "dreaming twins") at the end of each of the four arms of the cross.

19th Century Chinese candle-surround textile
detail showing blue swastika
which by this time probably symbolized
either the Four Winds or The Wheel of Life
Courtesy of Clarke & Clarke

Hubbell and Moore not only encouraged Navajo weavers to use swastikas but also spread the idea among Native American artisans working in other genres. Beginning around 1889, engraved silver spoons became coveted souvenirs. Navajos were best known for their silversmithing abilities and thus the spoons came to be known as "Navajo" though they were also crafted by Pueblo people. The two most popular motifs, according to author and antique Indian jewelry dealer Cindra Kline, were Indian heads and swastikas.

Swastika Shield
Kimo Theatre
(1927 - restored 2000)
423 Central Avenue NW
in downtown Albuquerque
Photo by Kirk Gittings

Kline, who has written a book on Navajo spoons to be published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in September, 2001, notes that the first spoon she's located with both a swastika and an engraved date coincides with the opening of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, though the item was certainly made years earlier.

The Charles M. Robbins Co., a commercial spoon company, was manufacturing so-called Navajo spoons as mementos of the fair. In 1906, Moore was the first to offer swastika spoons in its catalog. By the time the spoon craze died out around 1915, Kline says, "you had so many stamps and dyes with swastikas that the symbol appears on bracelets, sides of rings, ash trays, salt cellars. Any silver-stamped item was fair game for a swastika stamp."

In Santa Fe, swastikas can be found in myriad museums and galleries. At the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, a ceramic rain god made at Tesuque Pueblo circa 1900, proudly displays one. At Clarke & Clarke, swastikas adorn 19th century Thai garments and pre-historic Chinese bowls. Navajo spoons can be purchased at Kania Ferrin, Medicine Man and Rainbow Man galleries and Navajo rugs at Cristof's, Dewey, Packards and Sherwoods. And there are many other venues displaying Himalayan, Islamic, Asian and Native American art in which swastikas connote the natural world, good fortune or simply serve as attractive decorative elements.

Often, however, these pieces will not be on public view. "It's a horrible symbol to overcome," Kline remarks. "But the swastika can be such a beautiful design. It's a shame to see all these beautiful pieces hidden away." Given the difficulty of dating silver, Kline says, "If the viewer can look beyond Hitlerization, if you have a swastika spoon it's an assurance of age. You know it pre-dates WW II probably by a good number of years and it has a fascinating history."

How Hitler came to adopt the swastika is unclear. Various German citizens are said to have suggested it as a symbol of racial purity. Hitler was supposedly obsessed with numerology and Eastern religion and may have seen the image in Tibetan manuscripts or paintings. Regardless, the swastika's original meaning, which had endured for millennia, was diametrically altered.

In 1940, in response to Hitler's regime, the Navajo, Papago, Apache and Hopi people signed a whirling log proclamation. It read, "Because the above ornament, which has been a symbol of friendship among our forefathers for many centuries, has been desecrated recently by another nation of peoples, therefore it is resolved that henceforth from this date on and forever more our tribes renounce the use of the emblem commonly known today as the swastika . . . on our blankets, baskets, art objects, sand paintings and clothing."

References and Suggested Reading

The Swastika Symbol in Navajo Textiles by Dennis J. Aigner. DAI Press, Laguna Beach, California, 2000.

Navajo Spoons by Cindra Kline. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2001.

Indian Silver: Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers by Margery Bedinger. UNM Press, 1973.

Thanks to Dottie Indyke. Dottie lives in Santa Fe and write regularly about the art and culture of this region.

Originally appeared in
The Collector&rsquos Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 15

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